2. To The Waters
Part Two: To the Waters
"Oh, turds!" Legolas exclaimed, under his breath.
Aragorn could not help but smile. He had heard his share of Elvish curses from his two foster brothers, but none had conveyed such sincere dismay he heard now from Legolas.
Ahead of them lay a spot where the current had scoured out a shingled beach before sweeping around an outcropping of rock that extended into the river. A cloaked Elven rider on a large bay horse stood on the beach, regarding the two of them with a serene smile. Aragorn could see nothing about the horse or its yellow-haired rider to have provoked such consternation from his friend. The only other signs of life were a few barrels that had washed up against the north bank. The raft elves were nowhere to be seen.
"Eyes and ears in the trees, I swear it," Legolas began to mutter as he beached the boat. "Stay here and let me take care of this," he said as he stalked off across the muddy flat.
Understanding came to Aragorn when the rider dismounted. The elf was the same height as Legolas, although broader in the shoulders and chest, and his hair was a bright gold, three shades darker than Legolas's pale flaxen. The two of them together were like a slender birch standing in the shadow of a mature oak. The resemblance was unmistakable. So this, Aragorn told himself, was Mirkwood's king, Thranduil.
As a child, Aragorn had discovered that his Númenórean blood gave him far better sense of hearing than that of normal Edain. It had not taken him much longer than that to discover that most elves did not realize this and take into account how well he could hear when discussing things in his near presence. He had learned the most extraordinary things at Rivendell while listening to conversations that the elves thought were pitched far below his ability to hear.
So it was now. Although Thranduil spoke softly and Legolas spoke softer still, Aragorn had no trouble making out their words from where he sat, even over the sound of the rushing water.
"Mae Govannen, my son. A little bird came singing to me of your return from the western wood. Otherwise I might have missed your passing, for you seem to have taken much pain to hide it from me." The amusement in the older elf's voice was plain.
"It is good to see you too, my Lord Father," said Legolas. "A little bird indeed? I shall be having a word with that little bird when next we meet."
Thranduil laughed. "Do not be too hard on him for his loyalty to his king. How did you put it, son? His father raised no fools. I might ask as well, what is it about this adan that you would drop everything to see him safely through the forest when any of the other soldiers might have done so with as much ease and safety? Is not your first loyalty to me?"
"I am loyal to you, Father. But in this matter, I am under a higher bond. I once made a promise to a lady to look after Aragorn when it was within my power, and I do not take that vow lightly."
"A lady?" Thranduil raised an eyebrow. "So this is the boy you saved from the orcs only to need rescuing by good Radagast yourself. You have never been quite the same since you returned from that trip to Rivendell. Elrond's fosterling is grown to near manhood, I see."
Legolas nodded. "As Master Elrond's foster son, I felt he deserved safe passage through our realm and it should not be left to just any warrior. It warranted leaving my post."
"As a one so important to the Master of Imladris, perhaps he should have a stronger escort than just one Mirkwood warrior," Thranduil pointed out gently.
Legolas sighed, and his face became even more solemn. "Ada, I know Aragorn, and there is something that tells me he needs a friend now more than he requires a guard. Please . . . let me do this."
Thranduil nodded, somewhat reluctantly, Aragorn thought, and raised his voice to normal pitch. "Well, my son, you must introduce me to this friend of yours." He smiled and beckoned Aragorn over.
"My Lord Father, I present Aragorn, son of Arathorn, foster son of Elrond of Imladris."
Aragorn bowed. "I am most honored to meet Thranduil Oropherion of Mirkwood, about whom I have heard so much."
Thranduil let out a hearty laugh. "All of it good, I hope. I often find my reputation precedes me, and as with any ruler, so very much of it is exaggeration." To Aragorn's surprise, Thranduil held out his hand.
The grip felt surprisingly strong, as was Thranduil's undeniable charm. Aragorn felt the Elf-king's fingers rotating the ring of Barahir for a better look, and he could see Thranduil noting its significance. As with all elves, Thranduil's words said one thing while his eyes said something deeper. Aragorn felt himself being searched, and he detected something very strange in the demeanor of Legolas's father, almost a hint of fear. But this was Thranduil, who according to the histories in Elrond's library, had fought alongside Elrond and Gil-galad on the field of the Dagorlad itself. What could he have to fear from a twenty year old Dúnadan lad? Perhaps, Aragorn decided, it was not so much himself but something that he represented that made Thranduil uneasy, although he could not guess what it might be, and he put the conundrum aside for the time being.
"Any friend of my son's is a friend of mine," Thranduil said. "If ever you have need of aid or succor within my realm, you may consider it given. For now, Legolas tells me you merely need safe passage through the wood. It is granted, and you have one of Mirkwood's finest warriors to accompany you on your way."
At this, Legolas blinked and stared in surprise.
Thranduil nodded at his son. "You have my leave to go. As long as you do not start any wars or destroy peaceful relations with Esgaroth, I am content. I will await your return, whenever that might be." With another nod to Aragorn, he swung up onto his horse. "Enjoy yourselves," he called back as he cantered away to the west.
"That was . . . that was definitely something new," Legolas said slowly, shaking his head.
"He wasn't at all the way I had pictured him, from what you've told me," Aragorn said. "I like your father very much." Out of the huts at the forest edge, the raft elves began to reappear, now that the chances of fireworks between father and son had passed.
"Oh, I like him too, that is the problem," Legolas said. "Just wait until you have done something to disappoint him and he looks at you so sadly you just want to die from the shame of it. Then see how you like it. It is fiendish, Aragorn!"
Aragorn laughed. "At least Elrond was never so subtle. When he is displeased with you, you know it." At the thought of Elrond's displeasure, he felt his face fall again.
"Come," said Legolas, pushing the boat back into deeper water, "let us be on our way quickly before he changes his mind."
Aragorn hopped in, and the boat sped off downstream, with Legolas muttering something softly to himself about "doing this just to keep me off balance. I'm sure to pay for this later . . . ."
The forest ended suddenly after a few hours of paddling to the east. They rounded a spit of land from the north, the rocky cliff fell away, and Aragorn found himself in sunlight. Many miles to the east, Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, rose, with its summit hidden in a few wisps of cloud.
"The dragon lived there not so long ago," Legolas said. "Now the dwarves rule it. My father grumbles that it is hardly an improvement, but I think the folk of Dale would not agree. King Bard has made a good start on rebuilding at the foot of the mountain. Many have come to dwell there with him, living on the trade that flows from the mines. Dale is a fair land, now that it is recovering from the scorch of the Worm. Esgaroth is improving as well now that the trade flows north to Dale as well as west to Mirkwood."
Aragorn dropped his gaze away from the mountain. "Where is the river gone? I see it branching every which way among bogs and islands. How will we find our way through?"
"The earth shook often during the time of the dragon and the land dropped," Legolas said. "At the same time, the rains increased and the waters rose. You would not have found your way out through the old Elf Path. At least not without a guide. I know my way through it, though, Aragorn, by land or by water. I have traveled both."
The current had suddenly slowed, and Aragorn found they needed to paddle to make good progress. "Legolas, have you steered us away from the main channel?"
"I have, although the difference is subtle. The raft elves know which way to pole to catch the current going down to Esgaroth, and they know which other ways to take coming back upstream. I mean to take a small detour. Because it is so easy to get lost, these marshes are safe. The orcs avoid them, and we may have a fire tonight. I do not know about you, Aragorn, but I am growing tired of waybread."
A flight of herons burst upward from a grassy hillock, startling them. "They're back," Legolas said with a happy smile. "Each winter they leave for the south, seeking the warmth. Perhaps, Aragorn, you can tell me where they go, once you have journeyed to those far off lands where the stars are strange. They return in the spring to do their courting dances and to build their nests among the tall grass. They grow fat on the fish and feed their young, only to leave in the fall. And speaking of fish, I think I have found a good spot."
They had reached a spot on the swamp where the ground rose slightly higher. A few trees overhung the bank, giving some shade, and the water moved briskly enough for the bottom to be covered in gravel. They tied the boat and tossed what little gear they had on the ground in the middle of the island. Legolas moved to the water's edge and lay upon his stomach, trailing his hands into the stream.
"Watch this, Aragorn. I learned to tickle trout as a young boy. It is a useful skill for those with no lines and hooks. The water undercuts the bank, and the big ones like to sleep there in the shade. After a time, they will wake and come to your hand."
Aragorn laid himself down next to his friend and spoke softly. "Did the wood-elves teach you this?"
"I learned it from a mortal woman who used to live around here. She was my nursemaid for a time. She was a kind woman, and she loved me in her way," said Legolas, seeming to lose himself in memory. "I had no mother, you see, and this woman gave me a love and affection I shall not soon forget."
"I had no father either," said Aragorn. "Elladan finally told me how it happened. I understand much about my mother now. How did your mother die, Legolas?"
"I do not know," the elf replied. "All I remember is the softness of her arms and some dark hair, and then she was gone. I see my father's face when she is mentioned, and I dare not ask."
"This mortal woman, what happened to her?"
"She died. They all do," Legolas said matter-of-factly.
"How old are you, Legolas? How many mortals have you seen live and die?"
"Ah, no you don't!" Legolas laughed, managing to keep his shoulders still. "You are as bad as your mother. I am old enough to have seen much and young enough to yet appreciate it."
"What a strange folk you First Born are!" Aragorn grumbled. "To be ashamed of a youth that would seem to us like old age."
"I am not ashamed, just . . . discreet," Legolas protested. "I'm tired of being dismissed, as if my lack of years means a lack of wisdom or skill. Being the king's son makes it even worse, because they all assume that I have been given a task out of my father's fondness rather than my own ability to do it. I can assure you, Aragorn, that has not ever been the case."
"I suppose that is why you enjoy my company," Aragorn ventured. "Because I make you feel old and wise."
"Wrong, Aragorn," Legolas grinned. "I enjoy your company because you constantly surprise me. Aha! Speaking of surprises," he said, suddenly flipping a large trout from the river and onto the grass where it flopped about glistening in the afternoon sun, "here is our dinner. You light the fire while I find some rocks to cook this old fellow."
Legolas found a flat piece of shale, which they heated in the fire and used to grill the trout. As darkness fell, they broke bits of the flaky fish off with their hands and ate hungrily. Afterward, they lay back on the grass and passed the wineskin back and forth between them. There was no moon, and as ever, the stars shone like a multitude of bright jewels flung across the night sky. Aragorn stared up at the familiar shape of the Valacirca, whose two end stars always pointed to a bright star in the due north, and at the milky drift of foggy light that his people called the Great Road. He could scarce believe that there existed a land so far off that these same stars did not shine down upon it. Such a journey lay before him.
Legolas had become very quiet, and Aragorn wondered if he had fallen asleep. As usual, he lay with his eyes open and unblinking, even though he rested now on his back, a rare thing for the elf. Would he snore or begin to make all the other sleep noises that mortal folk do, Aragorn wondered as he pulled himself up on one elbow to look at his friend's face. To his surprise, when he caught the right angle, he saw that Legolas's eyes glowed with the reflected starlight, just as if he had been a cat or some other night-visioned creature. He jumped and shivered a little. Even growing up among elves as he had done, they still managed to surprise and mystify him at times. 'They raised me to think of myself as one of them, but I am not,' he thought to himself. The sleep of another elf and what she might look like in repose had been much in his thoughts of late, and this made him sigh.
"Are you ready to talk about it?" Legolas said quietly, making Aragorn jump once more. "This thing that shadows your heart, and has clouded the joy in your eyes since we met again?"
Aragorn shook his head.
"Then go to sleep. You just woke me out of a very pleasant dream with your staring. Tomorrow we paddle hard, and we will reach Esgaroth by evening."
It was near dusk when they paddled into the Long Lake the next day. The marshes had ended, and the river had veered south and reformed into a single channel. The majestic bulk of Erebor had shrunk and disappeared behind some hills at the north end of the lake.
They beached the canoe at the side of the lake and entered the town by way of a long narrow causeway. The guards, being used to the wood-elves, nodded them through, seeming to be only mildly surprised that this elf was accompanied by an unkempt young man.
"Every building rests on pilings, then?" Aragorn asked.
Legolas nodded. "It makes it very difficult to attack. There is much wealth in Esgaroth, which makes it an attractive target for orcs and brigands, but it has never been taken. Even Smaug himself could not do it from the air; it was only with his dying fall that he destroyed the old town. Come, I know a good inn where we can spend the night. No fleas and hardly any rats."
The inn proved to be a three-story affair in the center of the town, with a tavern on the first floor. "Sorry, our best rooms are booked by some merchants from Dale," the innkeeper told them. "You two fellows will have to share a room and a bed. I trust it will be no hardship."
"Do you know who this is . . . ?" Aragorn began, springing to his feet from a bench beside the door, where he had sat while his friend made the arrangements.
"Sit down, Aragorn," Legolas said mildly. He switched into Quenya. *They do not know me here, and I wish to keep it that way. Being unrecognized is a concept you will come to appreciate in time.*
Aragorn raised an eyebrow, briefly puzzled at Legolas's use of an obscure, ceremonial language, before realizing that the men of Laketown might well have understood Sindarin as well as the Silvan tongue from their dealings with Thranduil's raft elves. Just as quickly, he hid a grin. Although Legolas read and wrote Quenya well enough to get by, his pronunciation left much to be desired.
Legolas switched back to the common tongue and addressed the innkeeper. "That will be no hardship. As long as we may order a bath to be brought up. We are weary from our journeys and wish to be clean before we dine."
"As you wish," the innkeeper grunted, as if quite used to the elven insistence upon cleanliness in even the humbler guests. "Tell it to the wench. She will show you the room."
"It won't be a hardship, I hope Aragorn," Legolas whispered as they followed the girl up the stairs. "Am I such a disagreeable bed partner?"
"Other than the fact that you sleep with your eyes open, twitch like a demon, and talk to yourself, I suppose not."
"I confess, the only two spots in Ennor where I close my eyes to sleep are at Rivendell and in my father's halls," Legolas said. "At least I do not snore and break wind like some people I could mention."
"I do not!"
"Tell that to someone who has not spent the past week at your side. It is rather endearing, really."
"Break wind? Truly, Legolas!"
The elf laughed. "Now, that is just funny."
Aragorn glared and hoped that the chambermaid could not understand Sindarin. Their room was on the top floor. It was clean and well aired, and looked to have no rats as Legolas had promised.
"Please make the bath as hot as possible," Legolas said, handing the wench a gold piece. From the adoring look she gave him back, Aragorn thought that the gold might be entirely unnecessary.
The water and tub arrived in record time, hauled in by the maid and three footmen, one of whom also gazed on the elf with a look of unconcealed admiration, much to Aragorn's dismay.
"Who goes first?" Legolas asked, when the four had left the room.
"You," said Aragorn. "I am four weeks out of Rivendell, and once I am done with that water it will be so full of dirt that you might walk upon it. The grime never seems to stick to you, so I do not mind following."
"Thank you, Aragorn," Legolas said, promptly stripping off with a complete lack of self-consciousness.
Aragorn sat on the bed and tried not to look. Even growing up among the elves of Rivendell, Aragorn had absorbed the more modest customs of his mother, and he had never truly gotten used to the casual attitude toward nudity that the elves seemed to display. Although, he had to admit, if he possessed such a perfect body as any one of the First Born, and Legolas was no exception, he would not be very shy about showing it.
Aragorn had just been through an embarrassing time of imperfection where his body sprouted hair in unwelcome places and his skin had visited the humiliation of pimples upon him. The pimples had ceased, thankfully, but the hair continued to grow, and now Aragorn thought to his horror that it might be appearing on his back. He also felt that his muscles were thick and out of proportion next to such magnificent warriors as his foster brothers and the equally splendid Glorfindel. Legolas, although slender as a reed while dressed, looked fit as a coiled wire when stripped down.
Were they all as perfect, Aragorn wondered, as he watched his friend sink into the bath? The thought of another, very special elf and how that elf might appear naked, resulted in yet another humiliation. His gweth, which had been developing a mind of its own for the past several years, stiffened and jumped to life. He turned quickly away and put a pillow from the bed into his lap, lest Legolas notice his condition and get the wrong idea. For good measure, he turned his thoughts to the mental picture of the flyblown corpse of a marmot he had seen on the trip up to the Old Pass from Rivendell, killed by a falling rock and not yet discovered by the carrion birds. Control returned.
"Whatever is your problem, Aragorn? The most amazing parade of emotions crossed your face just now," said Legolas, sinking deeper into the bath. To get his hair beneath the water, Legolas had to put his knees high onto the air.
Aragorn gave a noncommittal grunt.
"I must thank you," Legolas continued. "This hot bath is a treat. For the past six months, I have had to content myself with wiping down my body with handfuls of snow or standing naked in the rain."
"That would have an unfortunate effect on me," Aragorn laughed in spite of himself.
"It has that effect on all of us," Legolas replied with a knowing grin. He stepped from the tub and wrung out his hair, shaking it like a wet dog and spraying the corners of the room with tiny droplets. "All yours."
Aragorn turned his back and removed his garments. Busy with his braiding, Legolas showed not the least interest. Aragorn sank into the water, which was still hot. Cleanliness felt delightful, and he realized that his decision to leave Rivendell meant such simple things might not be available to him in the future.
Aragorn enjoyed a long soak. Already dressed, Legolas lay on the bed, politely averting his eyes when Aragorn emerged from the tub. Aragorn toweled off, put on breeches and began to shave his beard, using his hunting knife. At the second scrape, Legolas winced.
"Please, Aragorn, give it up. It hurts just to watch. The whiskers look good on you. Just trim them and let it be. The lasses will like it, I can assure you."
Aragorn laughed and shrugged. "I remember once telling you that I would have to go bearded when I grew up, and it seems that time has come. I would have asked one of the Rangers that the twins and I rode with to teach me to shave, but they seem to go bearded as well. I will keep it short enough so that is does not trap my food and be content. My knife is sharp enough for that."
He trimmed his beard as short as his knife would allow and donned the rest of his clothing. The room had no glass mirror, merely a polished piece of tin hung on the wall. Aragorn squinted into it, could make out nothing. "Have I got it even?"
"Except for the spot where you took away the skin. You're a bit scruffy for the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, but for an Esgaroth tavern, you pass muster." Legolas swung his legs down off the bed and stood. "Come along. I am ready for a drink and a hot meal."
The tavern was dark and not very crowded. Legolas chose a table in a corner as far away from the pipeweed smokers as possible. Even so, errant streams of the fragrant smoke drifted past them, and Aragorn smiled to himself to see the elf wrinkle his nose and stifle a sneeze.
A serving wench came up to the table. "What will be your pleasure tonight, young masters?" she said, in a tone that suggested that anything could be had, including herself.
"What have you on the bill for supper?" Legolas asked.
"Cook has a flank of venison roasting, and a nice chicken."
"Chicken, then," said Legolas quickly, and Aragorn concurred. He had a feeling he would be having more venison in the coming days than he wished.
"And a flagon of our wine?"
Aragorn was about to nod the affirmative when Legolas stopped him. "We'll have a pitcher of that dark ale the dwarves of Erebor brew, if you have it on the tap."
"Aye, we have it. They are strange folks, those dwarves, but their coming to the mountain has brought much good to the town. There is gold from the mines and trade from Dale. The only ones I hear complaining are the young men, for they used to get the girls to give up their maidenheads for fear of becoming a feast for the dragon, dragons having a special liking for virgins, as is well known. Since old Smaug was killed, that ploy is lost to them." She gave them a saucy wink and sashayed off.
"Ale?" said Aragorn.
"The wine here is undrinkable. Trust me on this. My father's butler, Galion, says the dwarvish ale tastes like horse piss, but at least it is better than the wine."
"He knows the taste, does he?" Aragorn quipped.
"Knowing Galion, it would not surprise me in the least," Legolas grinned back.
The wench returned with their pitcher and two tankards. Another serving maid brought a platter of chicken. Both girls eyed them with sly glances from beneath lowered lashes before withdrawing.
Legolas sniffed at his ale and took a careful sip. "Ahh! Horse piss never tasted so good."
"I think those girls liked you, Legolas," Aragorn teased.
"Those girls like anyone with a gold coin in his pocket. But the way that red haired one was looking at you, Aragorn, I think she might be willing to forgo her price."
"The way the dark haired one is looking at you, she might even be willing to pay a stud fee," Aragorn laughed.
Legolas shrugged in good humor. "It is not my way. But, Aragorn, if you should wish to take some ease, I will be content to sit here and have another pint alone while you use the room."
Aragorn almost laughed at his friend's clumsy attempt at thoughtfulness. "Alas, Legolas, I fear I've been among you Elves too long. Your way has changed me in ways that are not customary for one of my kind." The ale had begun to go to his head and loosen his tongue. "Legolas, have you, yourself, never been tempted?"
The elf had a chicken leg, and he chewed pensively on it for a moment. "Tempted? Of course. I have the same bodily urges as any male, and I have had them since I came of age. I am sure you have had them as well."
"Yes, and this is why I have left Rivendell."
Legolas raised an eyebrow. "Please tell me, Aragorn, that you have not discovered you like boys!"
"No," Aragorn had to laugh, "it isn't that. Last year, a girl in one of the Mannish camps took me aside. I think Elladan and Elrohir put her up to it. She showed me a few things. Well, if truth be told, she showed me everything there was to learn. I liked it well enough, but something was missing. I did not know her, and she did not know me. Has that ever happened to you?"
Legolas sighed. "We are told that, for us, to consummate is to bond. I have never . . . consummated."
"But surely, there must be some things allowed?"
"I would have thought that your foster brothers could have explained these things to you."
"It is complicated, Legolas. The subject of how you First Born conduct yourselves in courtship never arose, and I can no longer ask them. So I ask you."
"Very well then. A kiss, a caress. Perhaps even a deep caress. These are allowed."
"Even before I came of age, my father had The Talk with me, about hurt feelings and raised expectations in those I might dally with. I am the scion of the House of Oropher. It would not be seemly for me to be caught with my hand down half the bodices in the realm."
"And never on a codpiece, I presume," said Aragorn dryly.
Legolas rolled his eyes and laughed nervously. "Ai, Aragorn, do not even jest about that! Can you imagine my father's reaction? I am not saying that such things are unknown to us, but . . . not for Thranduil's son. Fortunately for me, I have never found a codpiece that was anywhere near as enticing as a bodice. But even if I did not have to be mindful of my position, I would not play with hearts as some of the young elves do. I do not like to start what I cannot finish."
"So you haven't?"
Legolas shook his head.
"I wonder sometimes at the wisdom of the Valar, to grant such long life at the cost of such rigid self denial."
"There is a reason for that, Aragorn. We do not love lightly, to avoid tying ourselves to fools for eternity. But when we meet our one true love, it is bliss indeed."
"But when you meet that special one and cannot have her, it can be pure hell." Aragorn saw a look of pain flit through his friend's eyes and had only the briefest time to wonder what it was about before he continued. "This is why I said I've spent too much time among you Elves. I have found her, Legolas, my one true love, and I may not have her. No other will do, and it is killing me."
"So this is the sorrow that weighs your heart and sends you from Elrond's house. Have you finally drunk enough ale to tell me who it is?"
Aragorn stared off into the corner, where he could see the two barmaids eyeing him. They were beautiful women, and he knew he could have either of them by crooking a finger, yet it would mean nothing. Nor would the most lovely and highborn lady of all the lands of Men.
"Arwen," he said. He heard a soft cough from behind him and turned to see Legolas wiping his nose with his sleeve. The elf had also spilled his ale. "Do not mock me, Legolas. Please."
"Never. The man or elf who would mock you is a fool." Legolas's voice still held a raspy note, as if he had accidentally inhaled some of his drink. "Arwen. Elrond's daughter. The Lady Undómiel. How did this come to pass?"
"I was walking in the gardens at Rivendell, and I had been singing the Lay of Beren and the maiden Tinúviel. I saw her on the path and cried out the name Lúthien, for I thought I had strayed into a dream that my song had brought to life, she was so lovely. She smiled at me, Legolas, and we talked, and in time, we kissed. She likes me too, I think."
"If she kissed you, she likes you," Legolas said bluntly. " She more than likes you. Then what happened?"
"I told my mother that I had found my true love, and when she found out who it was she said . . . ." Aragorn paused to drink. The pitcher of ale that had been almost empty had somehow been refilled without Aragorn noticing that Legolas had signaled the wench. "I'll not tell you all she said, Legolas, for it was harsh and she was most displeased with me. She does not feel that an Adan should aspire to the love of a daughter of the Eldar, most especially not the daughter of our host."
Legolas sighed and drank even more deeply than the sigh. "Yes, I can imagine she would have said that."
"Not long after, Master Elrond called me in. This was not my mother's doing, for he had seen it as well, the looks that passed between Arwen and me. He said that I would be plighted to no one for many years, and to his daughter, never, for he told me of the Doom of the Peredhil and the choice all his children must face. Legolas, I am in misery. My desire for Arwen is like a knife twisting in my chest, and they treat me like a silly child."
"They are right, Aragorn." Legolas held up his hand at Aragorn's stricken look and continued. "And they are wrong. Elbereth knows they have been treating me like a silly child for so many years now that I will never do it to you. But Elrond is correct. You have only twenty summers. When I had just come of age, I barely knew east from west or up from down. You need to make a man of yourself before you go wooing any lasses and expecting them to bind themselves to you. And that goes tenfold for the Lady Undómiel."
Aragorn hung his head. Elrond had spoken truly. Next to Arwen, he was but a callow youth.
"But here is where they are wrong, Estel. You must not put aside your hope. I see the promise of the man in you, and that man could be worthy of her. This was apparent to me when you were a small boy, and now Arwen must have seen it too, for let me tell you, she has never shown a wish to kiss me or any other elf that I know of, and there are many who have desired it."
Aragorn stared sadly into his ale. "Legolas, how dare I do such a thing? What could there ever be about me that Arwen should give up her immortal life for me? What could I ever give her to repay such a sacrifice?"
"The very fact that you could say such a thing is a good beginning," Legolas said bluntly. "But I will give you an answer to that question, Aragorn, and it is a hard thing for me to say. You may be able to give the Lady Undómiel something that a male of her own kind cannot."
"What could that be, other than a short life with crushing grief at the end?" said Aragorn bitterly.
"You noticed how few children there were at Rivendell. I have told you how few young ones there are in my father's realm at a given time. My parents were wed for over two and a half thousand years before I was born, although my father assures me this was from no lack of interest or . . . effort." Aragorn noticed Legolas colored slightly as he said this. "The time of my people in Ennor is coming to an end, and our strength is failing us. Not our virility, mind you, but our . . . fecundity. The First Born have always prized children above all else, and our lack of young ones is a sorrow to us. If you can give Arwen a child, it will make it worth every other loss she will have to endure. Your race is claiming the Earth, Aragorn, and a child of Arwen's means that a little of our people remains with you when we are gone."
"I never thought of that. The Edain take children for granted. Such a simple thing."
"Not so simple," Legolas said. "For I think convincing Elrond will be the more difficult task. You have come between a father and his child. If Arwen's heart is won, it is already won. However, the quest for her hand may be a long and arduous one. There are no Silmarils around anymore to be recovered, but if I know Elrond, he will find an even more difficult task for you. It may be that you will fail in the end. But at least you will have tried."
"You are a true friend, Legolas. None of the others has given me any cause for comfort." The ale had made Aragorn somewhat maudlin.
"Elladan and Elrohir might see it differently, "Legolas said, with a trace of humor. "If they knew I was encouraging you in this they would probably hang me by my feet from the highest balcony in Rivendell and threaten to drop me on my head."
"They have done that to you? They did that to me many a time," said Aragorn, stifling a yawn. "I am going to miss those two. Ai, Legolas, the ale pitcher is empty. How many did we drink?"
"Three," said the elf with a grin.
"I don't remember drinking that many," said Aragorn rising from the table and discovering that the room was no longer quite as steady as when he had sat down.
"'You won't remember much of anything in the morning," said Legolas good-naturedly. "Too bad it took that many to loosen your tongue and let an older wiser friend give you some good advice. Next time maybe you will not be so close-mouthed. All you need to remember is to believe in yourself and trust to hope. Come now, King of the West, I think it's time for you to get some sleep."
Aragorn felt himself born up as the elf put an arm around him to steady him and lead him toward the stairs. They got a few strange stares from the other patrons, which Legolas answered with a wink and a mischievous grin. The stairs were too narrow to go abreast, so with a brief, "No kicking this time please, Estel," Legolas tossed him over his shoulder and carried him upstairs with the same ease with which he hefted his bow and quiver.
Reminded yet again of how strong these deceptively graceful beings were, Aragorn made a note to himself never to try to push his weight around with Legolas or any other elf. He felt himself deposited gently on the bed and he fell into the first untroubled sleep he had known since leaving Rivendell.
* * *
It was almost noon the next day when the two of them reached the falls at the south end of the lake. Aragorn had awakened fully clothed but with his boots off. An annoyingly cheerful Legolas had brought him a cup from the tavern below, filled with a nasty looking drink he referred to as Elvish medicine. Aragorn had remarked sourly that it smelled like the other output of a horse, and it tasted even worse, but once down, Aragorn's head had begun to feel better. He had to admit that, of all the folk in the world, the elves of Mirkwood knew the best cure for a hangover.
Head aside, Aragorn felt the best he had in weeks. It was as if Legolas had lanced a festering wound and drawn off the poison, and his words of hope had been like a balm of Athelas. If his friend thought him worthy of Arwen, then by the Valar, he would fight to make it so. He found himself looking forward to the long trail ahead.
They beached the canoe on the western bank and went to the edge of the plateau. Aragorn could see the bright ribbon of the River Celduin below the falls, curling far off into the haze of the distance as it ran southeast to the sea of Rhun.
"There is a portage path that will take you to the bottom. From there, follow the river. It is a fortnight to the inland sea, or so I am told."
Aragorn looked at his friend in surprise. "You mean not to follow?"
Legolas shook his head.
"I had thought for the past few days that you might come with me."
"I had thought, for a time, that I might do that -- run away from home if you will -- but I cannot, Aragorn."
Aragorn could see an almost naked longing in his friend's eyes as he looked out over the strange land to the south. "Why not? Your father all but gave you leave. And what of that promise to my mother to look after me?"
"You heard that?" Legolas seemed slightly surprised. "I did promise her that, but I promised her more -- that I would see you happy, and with your confession last night, you have just made my job far more complicated. If it were just a matter of keeping your body safe, I would throw you over my shoulder and carry you back to Thranduil's halls, where you would be safe until your dying day. This is what my father would wish to do to me, has tried to do to me, and only now do I begin to understand the temptation."
Legolas turned away and stared at the lake. "There are worse tragedies than a short life, Aragorn. There is the waste of a long life lived without ever having achieved happiness or fulfillment. You have a chance at a magnificent fate. If I were to come with you now, to solve your problems and shoot your spiders for you, you would never come into your own manhood. At least not the manhood it will take to win Arwen. I would only hold you back. In time, you will have the need for wisdom, and you may find someone to teach it to you. But I am not that one."
"I would have liked you at my side, Legolas."
"And I, as well," Legolas sighed. "If you survive this test, Aragorn, there will come a time when you will need your friends, and I promise I will be there, at your side, watching your back. But this is not that day."
"You are right, Legolas. This is something I must do alone." He turned to leave.
"Hold, Aragorn! Let me look upon you one last time, for I know you will be much changed in body and spirit ere my eyes behold you again; as changed as you were from the last time we met. I fear this is the last time I shall see your face unmarked by care."
The two stood staring awkwardly at each other for a time until Legolas pulled him into a swift embrace. Aragorn could feel the elf's heart beating and the almost fierce love that radiated from him, and for the first and only time in his life he did not feel fatherless.
"By the stars above, I hope I am not making a mistake. May Elbereth protect you, Aragorn. Now go!"
Aragorn smiled and turned his feet to the south.
'For he comes, the human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.'
W. B. Yeats, from The Stolen Child (1886)
* * * * * * *
I would like to thank my beta for this story, Lexin.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.